Just hours after the worst oil spill in the nation's history, former Exxon Valdez skipper Joe Hazelwood lied when he told a Coast Guard investigator he had drunk only one beer a few hours before his vessel ran aground on Bligh Reef. The truth, Hazelwood told a federal court jury Wednesday, is that he drank three vodkas on the rocks.
"The whole interview was kind of a blur for me," Hazelwood said of the Coast Guard officer's questioning. "There was a lot going on. Still, he had been pestering me about an interview. Then he started asking about the previous day. It wasn't very high in my priorities."
His state of mind at the time was "somewhere between shock, terror, worry, all rolled under the umbrella of trauma," he said.
"I was just trying to function. I was running on adrenalin. . . . I just wanted to get rid of him," said the 48-year-old Hazelwood, who earned roughly $100,000 as the captain of the Exxon Valdez.
Hazelwood was on the witness stand for the second day Wednesday giving testimony in his first public accounting of the events leading up to the 11 million-gallon spill in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. Shortly after the spill, Exxon fired Hazelwood, but the oil giant is paying for his defense.
Hazelwood was one of the first witnesses called in the lawsuit brought against him and Exxon by 12,000 fishermen, Alaska Natives, and business and land owners. They are seeking $1.5 billion in actual damages caused by the spill and an additional $15 billion in punitive damages. The trial is expected to last two to four months.
To win punitive damages, the plaintiffs must prove Exxon acted recklessly. And key to that, according to the plaintiffs' attorney Brian O'Neill, is proving that Exxon officials knew Hazelwood had a drinking problem but still allowed him to skipper an oil tanker.
Attorneys from both sides questioned Hazelwood about 1985, the year he sought treatment for depression and alcohol abuse. After treatment, Hazelwood attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and did not drink for a year. But in the spring of 1986, he started drinking again. O'Neill wanted to know why.
Hazelwood explained he was having dinner in a Florida port and at "that particular time it was a pretty good piece of fish I was looking at, and thought that it looked like it would go good with a glass of wine."
During cross-examination by Exxon attorney Jim Neal, Hazelwood said that during the next 11|2 years he drank on only five occasions, and none was in violation of Exxon or Coast Guard policies.
While the plaintiffs contend Exxon did not monitor Hazelwood after learning of his problems with alcohol, Neal said Hazelwood was closely watched. Neal revealed during questioning that a handful of Exxon managers had been sent to Hazelwood's ship to check up on him. One boarded his vessel in Panama in 1986 and searched his office and quarters but never explained why, Hazelwood said.
Hazelwood said he had not been aware Exxon management was keeping track of his drinking by talking to crew members.
When Hazelwood and the crew of the Exxon Valdez arrived in the Valdez port on March 23, 1989, they had roughly 12 hours before they were to depart.
Hazelwood said he caught a ride into town to his shipping agent's office. By 11:30 a.m., he was making calls from that office, according to telephone records.
At noon, Hazelwood said, he went to the Pizza Palace for lunch and had iced tea to drink. He said he left the restaurant at 2 p.m. and went to a flower shop to order Easter bouquets for his wife and daughter in New York. He visited a couple of tourist shops and then headed back to the shipping agent's office to see about buying fresh fish for the crew still on the ship.
At 4:30 p.m., Hazelwood said, he went to the Pipeline Club. He said it was the first time he had entered the bar that day. Previous witnesses testified he had been in the Pipeline Club around noon.
Hazelwood said he had three vodkas with two other shipmates, and then they decided to pick up pizzas to take back to the ship. While they were waiting for the pizzas and a cab, they ducked out of a blizzard into the Harbor Club bar.
Hazelwood and his two shipmates each ordered a drink because they didn't want to stand in the bar without ordering. Hazelwood ordered a vodka. He said he remembers being served, but was pretty sure he didn't drink it because the cab and pizza arrived. Hazelwood said he had his last drink at 6:30 p.m.
The Exxon Valdez left port that evening shortly before 10 p.m. At 11:43 p.m., Hazelwood said he issued navigation instructions to his crew and headed below deck to finish some paperwork. But something went wrong, he said.
Exxon attorney Neal said Hazelwood never should have left the bridge. Quoting from the company's safety manual, Neal said the ship's captain must be on the bridge when the vessel is passing through shoals, rocks and other hazards.
"In my opinion, those conditions did not exist," Hazelwood responded.
Hazelwood said he was in the ship's office when the third mate, Greg Cousins, called "saying we were in serious trouble. Concurrent with the call, I could feel the grounding occur and I ran up to the bridge."
He said he reported the accident 18 to 19 minutes later.
O'Neill asked him why not sooner.
"I had about 1,000 other things to try to accomplish," Hazelwood said. "Timewise, we should have been around Goose Island. I thought we hit something uncharted. I had the position on the chart, but my mind wouldn't accept it."
He is expected to complete his testimony today.
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